What is all the fuss about vitamin D? If you haven't read a magazine article on vitamin D recently; where have you been? There is so much interest in this magical vitamin, you would think it's the next big thing - well in the nutrition world it is!
What is Vitamin D?
• Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin essential for so many processes in the body
• It is needed for the absorption of calcium to develop and maintain healthy bones
• It is also thought to be involved in cell growth, immune function and reducing inflammation, making it a very important nutrient for everyone
We all need vitamin D just some people need it more than others, including young children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mums.
However that doesn't mean that the rest of us are not at risk. With workers increasingly staying in the office to work through lunch and rising pollution, many factors mean you might not be getting all of the vitamin D you need.
Check the following to see if you are at risk:
I eat lunch at my desk or in the canteen on most days / I spend most of time indoors
Our bodies need UVB rays from the sun in order to make vitamin D, so if you don't spend enough time outside then you might not be making enough.
I always wear sunscreen when I am exposed to the sun / I wear clothes that cover most of my skin
A fairly large area of skin without sunscreen needs to be exposed to the sun for sufficient vitamin D synthesis.
I limit oily fish, eggs and dairy products in my diet
These are just some of the few foods naturally containing vitamin D.
I live in a polluted area
Cloud cover, smog and polluted air as well as the season and time of day affect the strength of UV rays and therefore the amount of vitamin D that can be made.
I have Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean or Middle-Eastern origins
Skin melanin content affects the body's ability to make vitamin D.
I am over 65 years old
Skin becomes thinner and less efficient at making vitamin D with age.
What happens if we don't have enough?
So how important can one little vitamin be? Well, if you don't have enough vitamin D, there can be some nasty consequences, for example:
o In babies very low levels of vitamin D (usually because of low stores in pregnant mums) can lead to fits
o In young children, vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, resulting in soft bones and deformities such as bowed legs
o A condition called osteomalacia is seen in adults with extremely low vitamin D status - symptoms begin with aching bones and muscle pain and can progress to difficulties walking
o Long term vitamin D deficiency can cause osteoporosis which is commonly seen in the elderly, this involves the development of thin, brittle bones and risk of fractures
Recent studies have also linked low vitamin D to low mood and increased risk of conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and some cancers. So it is very important we make sure we get enough of this vitamin.
Where can I get it from?
Sun! If you are lucky enough to live near the Equator, the sun is strong enough to produce vitamin D all year round; however in the UK the sun is probably only strong enough from April to September, which makes it even more important to top up stores when you can. It is not clear exactly how much sun we need to get our daily dose of vitamin D - it is thought that being outside for 20-30 minutes on at least 3 days a week during April to September with some skin (e.g. face and arms or legs) exposed should be enough. Make sure that you don't use this as an excuse for sunbathing though - too much exposure increases your risk of skin cancer.
Very few foods contain vitamin D naturally. However, the best food sources of vitamin D are oily fish, so include these in your diet regularly (mackerel, herring, kippers, trout, salmon and fresh tuna). Other sources are fish liver oils, egg yolk, dairy and fortified foods like margarine and breakfast cereals. Try to include some sources of vitamin D every day - a fortified breakfast cereal makes a great start to the day, and a mackerel and salad sandwich for lunch followed by a 20 minute stroll in the sunshine is a great place to start.
Most people can get all the vitamin D they need from a balanced diet and regular time outdoors, however if you are worried that you might not be getting enough, you might choose to take a supplement. Never take more than one supplement containing vitamin D (including fish oils) as this could be harmful. Speak to your GP or dietitian if you have any concerns.